5-26-17 - Redirecting our Gaze

We often look for God in the last place we saw evidence of him. So it’s not surprising that the disciples were gazing up towards heaven as Jesus disappeared in the clouds. But just as at the tomb on Easter morning, when they were seeking Jesus’ body, two “men in white” appear once more to set them straight.

…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

In other words, “Don’t just stand here! Do what he told you to do.” And what he had told them to do was to wait in the city until they had been “clothed with power from on high.” So they did -

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying…. constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” 

And prayer is what they were doing when the Spirit came in power upon them ten days later – and after that, they were pretty much always on the move.

When we have an intense spiritual encounter or experience, we often want to rest in that, stay with it, try to get another "hit." And yet God almost always calls us forward, not back. The Spirit is moving, all around us, often in places and people we didn’t think to look. Part of our growth as apostles is learning to discern the activity of God, to note it, celebrate it, and – often – to join it.

Where have you seen evidence of God’s action lately? In whom? Did you read about something, or see something on the street, or have a conversation that struck a spark in you?

What if we made a practice, between now and Pentecost, of writing down each day one or two places or times when we became aware of the Spirit’s action? That would be a wonderful exercise to sharpen our spiritual senses.

If we want to see God, prayer and scripture and worship are part of the picture - but God is also out and about. What if prayer and scripture and worship became the ways we celebrated those God-sightings and became inspired to explore some more? That would energize the whole church!

5-25-17 - Testify

Jesus said to his disciples, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." 

I like to joke that many Episcopalians seem to be enrolled in a Witness Protection Program, staying as low-profile as possible about their faith and spirituality. That can happen when we focus more on church than on Christ. Jesus calls those who would bear his name in the world to bear witness to his story, and to the power of God he taught and lived. And witnesses testify.

Maybe “testify” is a problematic word; a witness in a court room does not always tell her story voluntarily. So let’s leave that formal, sterile, judicial context and look at how we talk about things we’ve witnessed in every-day life. An amazing encounter with wildlife. That hysterical cat video. The adorable thing our granddaughter said. The two-mile back-up with no known cause we endured. The movie we just saw. The new restaurant we love. We bear witness all the time.

Can we talk as easily and naturally about our encounters with the Holy when we have them? Can we talk about our outreach activities and worship experiences and the joy of community? Can we talk about Jesus and his story, and how it interweaves with our stories… or better yet, how it frames our stories? Our faith is not meant to be one strand of our life, woven in with all the other strands – it is meant to be the frame in which the tapestry sits, the frame that holds and contains our work and relationships and play and rest. In other words, our “faith-life” is our life, not part of our life.

Bearing witness is not even something we have to “do.” We need only allow God to do it through us. This Witness Program ships with a built-in power supply. 
Jesus says in Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And in Luke: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

That power came in fullness at Pentecost. We receive it at baptism, confirmation, ordination - and any time we exercise faith in the name of Jesus. If we find ourselves in a situation that could get “spiritual,” we can say a quick prayer: “Okay, God, you promised power… give me the courage and the words.” Ordinary conversations and encounters can become charged with holiness and result in amazing outcomes.

Exercise your faith in prayer if called on. Tell a story that is meaningful to you. Talk about what Jesus means to you. We can do that in ways that give people space for their own experiences and views. A witness is not there to persuade, but to tell a story that is true and authentic.

"You will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth.” From the perspective of Jerusalem in 33 CE (give or take...), we are the ends of the earth. If we’ve experienced blessing in God, let’s testify.

5-24-17 - The End - and the Beginning

Tomorrow is Ascension Day, a major church feast day - and ignored by most churches, unless they are named Ascension. Maybe this holiday gets less airplay because the event it commemorates is so odd. What shall we make of this dramatic departure of the already quite dramatically risen Christ? It's hard to imagine such a bizarre event, which only Luke records in any detail, in both his gospel and in Acts.

Yet this is the final scene in the incarnate life of the Son of God, and tells us how he gets back to the place from where our story says he started: the heavenly precincts, where from now on he will be seated in glory at the right hand of the Father. (...a somewhat sedentary eternity for one who moved around so much, and prompting the vexing question a child once asked me, "Who is on the left side of God?")

Jesus hung out for forty days after his resurrection, the Gospels tell us, instructing and inspiring his followers to believe the impossible, and to live as though they believed it. It’s hard to convince the world all things are possible with God while holed up in fear in a room in Jerusalem. So Jesus kept showing up and going through the lessons again. Even so, they didn't quite get it. Gathered with him just before he takes his final bow, they still ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Have they heard nothing he’s said about God being among them to heal the sick, raise the dead, proclaim restoration to the poor? Do they still not understand his mission, or theirs, to make visible the power of God to restore all creation to wholeness? Once again, Jesus tries to explain it:

He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

Why do we so often need to be reminded of where we’re supposed to be headed? Why do we so often let our focus narrow to the small matters of our own lives, forgetting where we stand in the big picture of God’s Life? How might we be regularly redirected to God’s mission through us?

By remembering that it is all about the Holy Spirit’s power working through us. Whenever we feel confused or discouraged or in doubt, we return to this central promise: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.

And then we need to be open to receiving that power, that presence of God with us; open to exercising that power in Jesus’ name – not our own power, but God’s power empowering our proclamation, our works of restoration and healing, our witnessing.

Jesus’ disciples were told they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The book of Acts shows us how closely the spreading of the Good News followed that trajectory. Our chapter in that book will tell even more amazing stories as we let the Spirit work through us.

5-23-17 - Jesus' Unanswered Prayer

How many people have stepped away from God because a prayer they desired with all their heart was not answered? If we’re going to put our trust in a being we cannot see, hear or touch, whom we can only imagine based on reports of others and our own subjective experience, hadn’t that all-powerful being at least deliver the goods? And it seems that God does not always deliver the goods we want.

We might feel better to know that even Jesus, the incarnate, sinless Son of God, who dwelt in God’s holy presence since before time began and dwells there for eternity, had unanswered prayers. There is one in this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In case you hadn’t noticed, the church that is meant to be Christ’s One Body in the world is as divided as it has ever been. Most people on one side or another of its many divides would say that those on the other sides distort or misinterpret Jesus’ legacy. Many would offer excellent support for their position. Unfortunately, unity rarely trumps the human need to be right.

So, did Jesus pray a dumb prayer? Why has it not been answered in a way that matched the deep desire of his heart? Why has love been so hard a road, even for the followers of the Lord of Love, the Prince of Peace?

I would say it is because we remain human. Not even the unlimited power of God can prevail against a human will that is not yielded to God. That is the way God set it up. God’s power is unlimited – except where God has chosen to limit it. If we have free will, the will to choose God or not-God, then God has voluntarily bound his own hand. If our prayers depend on the will of another person to choose one way or another, their efficacy will depend on how much that person is open to the influence of the Holy Spirit.

What prayers of yours have felt fruitless? Are you trying to pray around someone rather than for them?

This prayer of Jesus that his followers would be one, protected from the corrosion and dis-ease that division cause, can only be answered in our choosing differently. When we invite God to bring our wills for his church into alignment with his will, we might begin to seek reconciliation with others who claim to follow Christ. And seeking reconciliation is not the same thing as seeking agreement. Too often we start by trying to resolve differences rather than by building relationships.

How might we work toward the fruit that Jesus prayed for, that fruit of unity and love by which he said the world would know his followers? Is there someone who believes differently than you to whom you might offer relationship?

In the fullness of God's time, Jesus’ prayer has already been answered. Its completion will become more visible as we align ourselves with that prayer and live into it. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. "Where true love is, God is there."

5-22-17 - Eternity Starts Now

As John’s Gospel renders the account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his arrest and execution, he took a LONG time to say goodbye. The “farewell discourses” comprise five chapters in John. Much of that is Jesus’ final teaching about what he’s been up to, and what (who…) is coming next. These words ground the development of our doctrine of the Trinity, God as Three distinct “persons” in One unified whole.

Finishing his remarks to his followers, Jesus turns to his heavenly Father, in what theologians call “the high priestly prayer.” From this evolved the Church’s understanding that the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, existed before all things were made, “was with God and was God” always and forever. Jesus says, 
“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

In the presence of God is where Jesus began, and where he returned after his mission in the world was completed. In the presence of God is also where Jesus’ followers, those who believe, will dwell eternally. Jesus prayed,
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

We may think that eternal life knowing God, dwelling in God’s presence, happens when we die. But our Good News proclaims that, in Christ, God came among us. Our Good News is that when Jesus returned to the Father, God sent the Spirit of Christ to be with us always, at all times, to the end of the ages. Eternity has already begun. It is now.

We can forget that, aware of so much that is not of God. Our great claim as Christians is that the Life of God is already, is now, is here. Indeed, we help bring it more fully into being as we reflect that Life more than we do the life of the world. Life in this world is among the things that will pass away. Life in God, which we enter here and now, is forever.

What or who in your life today reminds you that you are already living in the eternal Life of God?
What is distracting you from that heart-knowledge?
How might you exercise your faith muscles to affirm that God is here, to pray about the matters that make you fear God is not here?

Jesus completed his work. He released into this world the Life of God; it cannot be re-contained or suppressed. But to many it can remain invisible – unless we make it known by how we live God-Life here and now. Where will you make that Life known today?

5-19-17 - Swimming in Love

Language fails when we try to convey the overlapping unity of love and persons in God, a triune swirl of inter-relatedness in which we are invited to swim. I comfort myself that Jesus, at least as his remarks are rendered in John’s Gospel, seemed to have almost as much trouble making it clear:

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Where does Jesus end and the Father begin? Where do we end and Jesus begin? Are we in the Father and in Jesus, or vice versa, or (g) all of the above? The answer is (g)… maybe (z). God is love. Jesus is love. We love and are loved, and so are drawn into the eternal and present Love of God.

When two people fall in love, there is often a period where identities merge. We don’t want to be separate people. We want to fuse, to lose ourselves in the glorious other, whose every word and movement is wondrous. This stage of in-love-ness is intoxicating – and it’s not forever. If the relationship is to grow and strengthen, we need to differentiate again, to carry our own identities, loving and respecting the other person, being with but not needing to be one with.

So is Jesus saying we lose our identity when we let the love of God become a part of us, and we of God? I don’t think so. The Christian tradition maintains that each of us is unique and precious. Our self does not get obliterated as we enter the stream of God’s love. Rather, being loved for who we are allows us to become more fully who we truly are, shedding the inauthentic carapaces and personas we grow to protect ourselves and cope with adversity.

We don’t lose ourselves swimming in God’s love any more than we do when we swim in the vast, refreshing ocean. We become more fully alive. We are contained in our bodies, and yet somehow one with a primal element. We exult as we move in that unbounded water, which allows us to dive and dance and turn somersaults and ride waves, all kinds of things we can’t do on land, just as dwelling in God's love enables us to do and think and say and offer all kinds of things we can’t in our natural selves.

Today in prayer let's go swimming. Imagine a waterfall flowing into the sea. Let’s say the sea is the Love of God, the waterfall is Jesus, and the spray that rises as they meet is the Holy Spirit. This sea is always being renewed, refreshed, replenished, the water all one, so you cannot distinguish sea from waterfall from spray. Imagine jumping in. How does the water feel? How does it make you feel? How do you want to move in it?

If this is God’s love, how does it feel to be immersed in love? How would you share the water with others? How would you invite others to join you in that pool?

Swimming in the love of God allows us to access the source of Love that has no limit, so that we love out of the reservoir of God’s infinite love, not our own limited supply. As we enter the summer “swimming season,” I hope you’ll have lots of opportunities to be reminded of the water in which we were reborn, in which we will swim always. Splash!

5-18-17 - Not As Orphans

Orphans. It’s a strong word. In 2005 I helped raise the money to build and launch a residential school for children orphaned by AIDS in Western Kenya, one of the poorest regions in that country, where at the time there were no services for the growing number of orphans. As the chief communicator drafting brochures, web pages and fundraising appeals, I used the word “orphans” as often as I could; it tugs at hearts strings more effectively than do terms like “at-risk” or “OVC” (orphans and vulnerable children).

Then I learned that our Kenyan partners avoid that word whenever possible. In an extended-family culture, to say a child is orphaned means that no one in her family or even village is prepared to care for her, a scenario which suggests the whole community is disabled. Many prospective students at the Nambale Magnet School had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS; few were to be labeled orphans.

”I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus tells his disciples on his last night with them. “I am coming to you.” It’s not what a boss would say to employees, or a coach to players, a teacher to students. This language acknowledges that the community of Jesus followers had become a family, with ties as thick as blood. Jesus recognizes that his departure from their daily lives, and the violence with which he will be wrenched from them, is likely to be as dislocating for them as it is for a child to lose his father or mother.

And it is yet another hint that death will not be the end of Jesus’ story. Only death can cause orphans. Certainly Jesus’ followers were going to feel like orphans after his death, and we see that sorrow depicted in the passion story. But they were not to be orphans, he says, because death was not to be his permanent condition.

How would it change us if we could live in that confidence whenever we’re facing great loss or sorrow? That we have not been left as orphans, no matter how abandoned we may feel in a given moment? It can be as difficult for me to trust that God is real and present as it is for my cats to understand, when I go on a trip, that I am indeed returning. We don’t have the capacity to truly comprehend it – so we learn to trust it little by little, strengthening our faith muscles, testing God’s love and Jesus’ promise: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

When did you last have an experience of “seeing” Jesus? In another person, in a movement of God, in prayer, in song? I suggest this question a lot – it’s the best way I know to reinforce our faith. Keep a record of those sightings; they help encourage us when we feel orphaned.

And, as my cats do when I return (I think!), we can relax and rejoice whenever we do experience Jesus’ life with us and in us again. Whatever our version of rubbing and purring is, I’m sure it pleases our heavenly Father when we offer our praise in love.

5-17-17 - God Within Us

I become a little uncomfortable when I hear people talk about “the God within,” or “the divine spark” in each of us. It can be a short distance from that to saying that we are all little gods, with the ultimate power over our own destinies. As attractive as that notion might be to some (not very appealing to me – God help me if I am my own god!), it is not the Way that Jesus invites his followers to travel.

Jesus did promise his full-time presence in our persons through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ's Spirit. “You know him,” Jesus says to his disciples, “because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” The New Testament teaches that the presence of Christ is within each of us by virtue of our baptism. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes, not because his identity has been supplanted in an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” way, but because his identity has been fulfilled, perfected in union with Christ through baptism. He has become most truly who he is in union with Christ.

The promise that Christ’s life abides – rests, stays, hangs out – within us offers tremendous resources; ultimate power, the power that made all things and restores all things. “Same power that conquered the grave lives in me…” we sing. And when we live aware of Christ’s life within us we pray differently, act differently, hope differently. We don’t beg God's power to descend on us from above, but that his power already in us through our union with Christ be released in us, and through us for others. We pray not as though we’re on a long distance call, but like we’re having a heart-to-heart conversation, because we are, Christ’s heart in our heart.

We act differently, because we are acting on the power, promise and presence of God, not waiting for those to be manifest outside us. And we hope differently, knowing that God’s love is so very near, so very “already.” Of course, there is a “not yet fully realized” dimension, but so much more in the here and now than we often recognize.

I came to know “Christ within me” better through learning the practice of centering prayer, becoming somewhat still and able to tune in to the Spirit’s prayer in me, to “pray/imagine” Jesus in conversation. I get to that still place most quickly through praying in tongues – which Paul tells us is the Spirit’s prayer released in us. “…for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit prays within us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) I can't say I know Christ well, but he isn’t “out there”; he’s in here.

How do you experience Christ within you? If you want to, try sitting in stillness, in prayer, and say, “Jesus – I am told you live with me and in me. I would like to experience more of your life in me. How do I do that?” Wait in silence, and pay attention to any images that form in your mind, or words. If your shopping list forms, gently invite it to wait over there, and return your focus to your prayer. You can repeat, “Jesus,” or another word or phrase. Try it for five minutes, and see what comes. Write down whatever transpires, and do it again another day.

Some people experience the reality of Christ within more keenly in action than in contemplation, or in worship. There is no “right” way. There is only invitation to more fullness and life than we’ve ever dreamed of.

5-16-17 - Love Capacity

Yesterday, we explored the relationship between loving Jesus and following his commands. Though these can be summed up as loving God and our neighbor, he gave plenty that were specific: “Love your enemies.” “Give to anyone who asks.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Proclaim the Good News and heal the sick.” Many of Jesus’ commandments are so counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, not to mention inconvenient, that keeping them is only possible for us from a place of love.

Such love also enables us to receive the gift Jesus promised his disciples that night before he was taken from them: 
"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” (This week's gospel reading is here.)

Jesus calls the Spirit “another Advocate,” suggesting this has been one of his roles with them, to stand with them against spiritual danger, to strengthen them in God’s mission. In this role, he was limited by his time in this earthly life. The Advocate whom the Father will send, he says, will be with them forever - a promise with no close-out clause.

Jesus says this "Spirit of Truth” is a force whom the world - humanity at large - does not see or recognize, and therefore cannot receive. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all who have the capacity to receive him – and what increases our capacity is love, giving and receiving love. Athletes and musicians find their capacity for taking in and holding breath increases with practice – I believe it’s the same with love. Our capacity grows as we exercise it.

What gets in the way of your ability to receive love?
In what ways do you feel you are inhibited in giving love?
What are some ways you might expand your capacity for love, given and received?

You can try on a discipline of learning to love someone whom you find challenging – start by praying for them each day to be blessed. Or is there someone whose love you keep at a distance, or someone who wants to help you in some way that you won’t allow… can you, as an experiment, allow that person into your life a little more, allow the assistance they could render?

When our capacity to give and receive love increases, it has a ripple effect. Our being more loving invites the people around us to receive more and give more in turn. Imagine if we lived in a culture based on love and more love? Think how many stuck systems and stuck people might be released to function in wholeness.

We don’t have to dwell in such utopian visions – let’s just start with ourselves, and our own hearts, inviting the Spirit to expand our capacity for love. That's the way we can help God with the big picture.

5-15-17 - Unconditional

I’m not fond of “if” statements where love is concerned. “If” smacks of contracts, and who wants love to be contractual? Especially the love of God, which we’re promised is unconditional, not contingent upon our response or behavior?

I’m also not crazy about the word “commandments.” So the first line of this week’s Gospel passage, which continues Jesus’ farewell remarks to his followers before his arrest and crucifixion, has a double whammy: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

On first glance, I read, “Oh boy, if I want Jesus to love me, I’d better be a good girl…” A closer look suggests that Jesus means quite the opposite. It’s not, “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.” Or “If you keep my commandments, I will know that you love me." It’s that keeping Jesus' commandments – to love God fully, and my neighbor as myself – is a natural consequence of loving Jesus. First we receive God’s love; our love flows from that.

How many times do I need to be reminded that this is the order in which grace operates? God’s love is not something we must, or even can, earn. Saying that the love of God is unconditional, not contingent upon our response or behavior, means we are free to receive it and respond as we will. Some people respond by ignoring it, putting the gift away, still wrapped. Others respond by trying to earn it anyway… which only exhausts us and makes it harder to receive God's gifts.

When we comprehend how truly “off the hook” we are and find ourselves in that place of humble gratitude for God’s gift of grace, something is released in us. We find we want to choose the good, we want to follow Jesus' way to increase our love, even when it costs us. Jesus says later, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Recall some times in your life when that grace has gotten through to you, and what your response has been. Those are good moments to remember and dwell in again.
(And if you’re in the “I’d rather earn it, thank you very much – don’t do me any favors,” place, I invite you to consider how that is giving life to you and those around you.)

Today, we might ask God to show us how his commandment to love might be more fully reflected in our lives. Think about the people you know, in all the places you know them. Where is God inviting you to let His love flow?

I believe that as we pay more attention to the “if you love me," the “you will keep my commandments,” part will become the most natural thing in the world.

5-12-17 - Greater Things

How did the church’s expectations get so small? Maybe not all churches – some do expect that God will move in power among them. But many churches, and Christians, seem to ask very little of God, as if unsure what they can count on. Just listen to what Jesus said:

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Greater works than what Jesus did? He who transformed water into vats of finest wine, who extended a snack into a meal for 5,000, who healed the lame and the lepers and gave sight to the blind? He who rose from the dead? It’s not possible. And yet, for a time, after the Spirit came at Pentecost, the apostles did indeed perform amazing works in God’s name and power. So what happened?

Well, God still works among us in miraculous ways, despite lukewarm faith or hesitance to ask too much of the Lord, as though God’s power were finite. Perhaps one obstacle comes from what Jesus is quoted as saying next, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” And, in case they didn’t get it, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve asked for things in Jesus’ name that I have not seen come to pass. Good things, holy things – healing and restoration, the gift of faith for those who wanted to believe but didn't. What are we to make of these words? Bad translation? Maybe the writer of John adding things for effect? I say that’s too easy. However this came into our sacred writings, we are invited to deal with it.

In part, that means dealing honestly with our disappointment with God for the “unanswered prayers.”* It means opening our spirits to the operation of the Holy Spirit so that more and more we pray for what God already intends – and maybe was waiting for us to be willing to be the conduit for. And it takes praying in Jesus' name - which means praying in his will, in his Spirit. It means praying Jesus’ prayers.

It is a fine balance to pray with huge faith and boldness and yet release our desires into the mystery of God’s will. We can only do it, I believe, from within an honest relationship with God, trusting in God’s love, even when that is hard to feel. That’s why they call it faith.

Name a “great work” you would like God to accomplish through you. Don’t be timid, don’t be rational – go for broke. Let God know that today in prayer. Ask the Spirit to help refine that prayer in you until you have an inner conviction that you are praying God’s prayer. If we have to say, “If it is your will,” we don’t have that conviction yet. We are invited to keep praying and keep inviting the Spirit to knead that prayer in us until its ready to rise and become bread.

If we don’t ask, if we don’t step out on the promises of God in faith, we will see mostly small works. Jesus said it; let’s lean on it. The more we pray, in faith, in the Spirit, the more activity of God we will see. Amen! Let it be so!

*Okay, we’ll go 5 for 5 with the pop song links this week… Garth Brooks gets the nod today, if not the prize for theology…

5-11-17 - A Family Likeness

We’ve all met children who were the spitting image of one parent – there can be no question whose child they are. That, the scriptures tell us, is how closely Jesus reflected the image of his heavenly Father. Paul wrote, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Col. 1:15)

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says in response to Philip’s plea, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

“How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (This week's Gospel reading is here.)

Jesus' features may have been Semitic, his language Aramaic, his manners and speech shaped by his Galilean upbringing – but his spiritual authority, his healing power, his supernatural intuition, his relational instincts, those revealed his Father’s life in him.

This family likeness extends to those of us who are happy to be called his sisters and brothers. As we “put on Christ," as we let his life shine out through us, we grow into his likeness. Or perhaps it’s more precise to say we grow more transparent so that the world sees less of us and more of Christ in us – “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” another quote from Paul in Colossians.

I don’t have a classic pop song today, but here’s a link to Disappear, by Bebo Norman, a song about getting out of the way so that God’s life shines through us. "And you become clear as I disappear,” he sings in the refrain.

In whom have you noticed glimpses of God-life? What was it that caught your attention?
When do you feel you best reflect the love of God to the world? When do you feel most in sync with your heavenly nature, the true self you're in the process of uncovering?

A good prayer is, “Lord, increase your life in me. Increase my capacity to receive your life. Let any willfulness in me that obscures people seeing you be brought into alignment with your will, so that when people see me they see you.”

That prayer takes a lifetime being answered, but we can experience the shift as we pay attention. We are the only way the world will see Christ this side of glory. And when he is visible in us, people notice, and they want more.

5-10-17 - If You Don't Know Me By Now

I believe that human beings have a deep need to be known, perhaps even deeper than our need to be loved. After all, real love presumes knowledge about the one we love, all that is wonderful about them and much that is not.

So I feel for Jesus when he realizes yet again how little his closest friends have really known him, recognized his identity, what is most authentic and true about him:

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?"

“All this time, and still you do not know me?” Naturally, today’s pop tune link goes to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, If You Don’t Know Me By Now.* In fairness to the disciples, though, it must have been very hard to take at face value the things Jesus said about his union with his “father in heaven,” even witnessing the amazing spiritual power he demonstrated. Surely he’s being metaphorical, symbolic, hyperbolic, they thought… Often we say the same things about this One whose truth we can never fully grasp.

We can never grasp the truth about another until we can “walk a mile in their shoes.” Our sacred story tells us that Jesus came in human flesh to walk a mile in our shoes. How might we walk in his sandals? By letting his Spirit, whom we name Holy, fill us. By truly being His Body in the world. By entering into conversation with him in prayer, reading about him, talking to other people who know him. The same way we seek to get to know anyone.

Today, in prayer, take a bold step. Ask Jesus something you want to know about yourself, or about him. Try to sit in quiet awhile and see if you sense any response – it may not come in words. It may come in an image that you see in your mind, or something that catches your eye around you. It may come later in the day in song lyrics or in an encounter with someone, in a thought or insight. And maybe in words.

And see if Jesus has a question for you.

Our Good News diverges from the song in that it’s never too late to get to know Jesus (a few scary parables notwithstanding….) As with any relationship, getting to know him takes an investment of time and vulnerability and desire. Billions of people have found it worthwhile. Meet him for coffee and see where it goes.

* Check this link for the Soul Train live version, with the appliqued pastel jumpsuits – some people really did have to suffer for their art…

5-9-17 - I'll Take You There

“I know a place,” sings Mavis Staples,
“Ain't nobody cryin', ain't nobody worried;
Ain't no smilin' faces, lyin' to the races…I’ll take you there.”

“And you know the way to the place where I am going,” says Jesus.

Do we? Do we know how to get to that place where pain and anxiety and injustice are no more, where “sorrow and sighing will flee away?” (Isaiah 51) Thomas surely didn’t.

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’"Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

In a relational system like the Christian faith, everything – places, routes, truth, even life – comes down to a person. And not just any person – the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we claim was the humanly embodied Son of God. Beyond following a way, assenting to a truth, living a life, as Christ followers we are invited to know Jesus. Knowing Jesus is the Way to know God most fully. Knowing Jesus brings us into a relationship with Truth. Knowing Jesus allows us to fully live that abundant Life he promised.

Of course, scholars have, do and will argue about how exclusive that next sentence was intended to be. Did Jesus really say that, and what did he mean? I just focus on what he said after that: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” Jesus said he was the Way. Best? Only? Fastest? I don’t know. This is the revelation I have received, so this is where I rest. I seek to know the fullness of God by allowing Jesus into my life in relationship, in conversation, in guidance and sensing and love. If I ever know Jesus well enough, I might explore other spiritual ways. Certainly I can appreciate them, but this one is deep enough for me.

If we’ve grown up with the notion that God is very close, like a grand-dad sitting in his rocker, then Jesus’ proclamation might have little power. But if, like his hearers, you’ve been taught that God is far and too impossibly holy to be known, then you can understand how radical it was for Jesus to proclaim that God was knowable through knowing him.

How do you know Jesus? Through prayer? From books? Stained glass windows? Movies? Bible study?
How well do you want to know Jesus? Do you want to let him come close, or stay at arm’s length?

I believe that if we say to God in prayer, “I’d like to know you more,” that the Spirit will begin to reveal God to us. I don’t know in what way – if you offer that prayer, you might want to keep a prayer notebook to write down whatever you experience in coming to know God better.

I do believe God wants to be known. That is why Jesus came like us – so we could at least recognize him enough to draw near. And when we draw near to that place… we find God.

5-8-17 - Somewhere

There’s a place for us; somewhere a place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there; hold my hand, and I’ll take you there…

In the musical version of Jesus’ last night with his disciples, maybe he’d break into song. Somewhere. A place for us. (I’m reminded of a lot of pop songs in this reading… stay tuneful this week!). He is trying to comfort his followers, as they begin to realize he is soon to be taken from them.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

If only we could believe it when people say they’re coming back for us. If small children could trust that mom’s not disappearing for good, they’d need fewer blankets and bears. If young women could trust that men really do just “want some space,” there’d be fewer bad love songs. We can’t believe what we can’t conceive – and how could Jesus’ friends conceive of life beyond death, not to mention a place “out there” with him and lots of dwelling places and plenty of room for everyone?

How can we? This passage is often used at funerals. Perhaps it comforts the bereaved to know their loved one has a front-door key waiting on a hook somewhere – though I doubt anyone who’s enjoying pure Being has much use for a zip code. But we like to know where our people are, to imagine them in a place. Maybe we like to imagine ourselves in a place, so we've have taken the Bible's few symbolic hints about heaven and worked them into a city with golden streets and gem-encrusted gates.

I’m not yet concerned about arranging for my plot in the afterlife. I know that I can start living that life where I am now. We can access the heavenly places all kinds of ways – in worship, in prayer, in a walk on a fine day – anywhere and any time we feel ourselves connected to Jesus, in the presence and light and love of God.

What is your view of the afterlife – your afterlife? Is it something you imagine? 
Where and how do you best find yourself in touch with God in the here and how?
Is that anything like the heaven you imagine? Maybe in prayer today you can ask the Spirit to make you aware of the Somewhere God intends for you to dwell in.

We are invited to live already as though we know that place, that Somewhere, where Jesus is, where God is. And when we live out of that conviction, we bring it into being in the here and now. Forgiveness and love and giving our stuff away to people who need it become a lot more natural – we’re living the life of heaven.

Somewhere. We'll find a new way of living, we'll find a way of forgiving …Somewhere …

Somewhere is here, my friends. Some time is already.

5-5-17 - The Abundant Community

Abundance has its drawbacks, I note between sneezes. The spring growth that bedecks our yards in pink and purple and green also generates a super-abundance of pollen. Similarly, when a whole community is living the abundant life, it generates as much growth as the flowers and trees.

Jesus calls us to live abundantly, and Sunday’s reading from Acts about the early church gives us a glimpse (perhaps slightly idealized…) of just how beautiful and fruitful abundance can look like in community:

“Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”

It’s a simple recipe for the good life – and yet most Christ-followers find it impossible to live this way. This is a puzzle, and a shame, for observers outside the faith have pointed out how much more appealing Christianity would be if its followers were more Christ-like. (Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the most famous, saying, “Oh, I don't reject Christ. I love Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”)

Yet even that early community didn’t stay focused on mutuality and abundance. We read in Acts that early on someone decided to withhold some of the proceeds of a land sale, and lied about it, which was the more community-breaking act. Conflict and scarcity raised their ugly heads.

So, should we abandon this as an impossible ideal? I hope not. All it takes is one person to recommit to living Jesus’ abundant life. Two is even better. They influence others, who decide to reorder their lives, and on it goes. Sociologists have shown that human behavior is remarkably contagious. Greed, fear, and control are having a pretty good run...might we regain some ground for love, faith and peace?

If you made the lists yesterday of things and people who steal your goodwill, peace, confidence and joy; and the people and places that help you gain those gifts, you have a blueprint for action. If you’re in a covenant relationship with someone else, hold each other accountable when the “scarcity thinking” starts to mess with your abundant joy. As our communities commit to live this way, increasing our capacity to trust that resources we need will be there when we need them; to stop and shift whenever we start to make a decision based on our fear of scarcity – we will grow, in faith, in joy, and even in people.

Abundant life has a generative principle – abundance generates more abundance. That passage from Acts ends with this: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” If we mourn the scarcity of people in our pews, let’s take on the discipline of abundant living and abundant trusting. Few things are more attractive than someone living at peace and trusting in “enough.”

When all the energy in the tree is focused on pushing out buds, it bursts into flower. And when all the energy in our communities is focused on living into Jesus’ promise of Life in abundance, we’ll burst into fruitfulness. That's nothin' to sneeze at...

5-4-17 - The Abundant Life

Want a simple principle to guide life choices? Which option leads to more life, and which is likely to drain life away?

When energy and time are finite, we need to invest in people and activities we find life-giving, and which give life to others, rather than ones which run us down, involve unnecessary criticism or lead to dark, toxic thinking or behavior. It's not always that simple, of course, and might involve some rewiring. Yet that is the kind of transformation the Holy Spirit works as we make room for God’s life in us.

Jesus draws a contrast between life-giving and death-dealing in this week’s passage:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” he says. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“The thief” might be anything or anyone who stunts our life or brings oppression, be it emotional, political, spiritual, economic, or any other kind. Jesus was painting the religious leaders with that brush, and of course the Roman occupiers. He probably also meant our spiritual adversary, the devil, intent on drawing people away from trusting the love of God. We know what death-dealing looks and feels like.

The abundant life is harder to describe, since life is hard to quantify – but we know it when we’re living it. It consists not so much in an abundance of things or time or even love, as in our awareness of richness, our being tuned to abundance. The abundant life is a balanced life, where we are renewed as we pour ourselves out for others. It is a life of laughter and insight and rich conversations, of wonder and play. It is life that we live here and now, and it does not end with death. That, Jesus says, is why he came – that we might have life, and have it in abundance.

What are the “thieves” of your good will, peace, confidence, and joy? Make a list of all the culprits. It might include people you love; surfacing that can give you incentive to work on those relationships. This exercise is not without complications!

In what places do you find the most life? List those too. Do you get to put enough of your time and energy into those things? Can you find a way to invest more? Any investment advisor will tell us to put our resources into things with a good yield, what Jesus called “fruitfulness.” Are we investing wisely with our time and gifts and love?

When our hearts are tuned to abundance, we find feasts large and small. We make feasts for others at the drop of a hat. We trust that resources will be there when needed, and usually find they are. We move with the wind of the Spirit in our sails, and when we’re becalmed, we rest in it. We feel our feelings fully, even the less happy ones. We forgive ourselves and others easily. We love ourselves and others.

The abundant life is not where I began, and it’s still a place I need guidance to navigate. As the Holy Spirit remakes me, in union with my spirit, I’m starting to dwell there more and more. I hope you are too.

5-3-17 - Coming and Going

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Earlier this week we explored Jesus’ saying that he was the gate of the sheepfold, the means of entry. I said it was hard to imagine a person as a gate. I’d forgotten something I once learned about sheepfolds in Jesus’ day: scholars think they often had no gate. The shepherd, when the flock was safely enclosed, would lie down to sleep in the opening as a way of securing the flock. Thus, the shepherd became a gate.

Putting aside the amusing image this prompts of a sleepy shepherd trampled one morning by hungry sheep going out to pasture, it helps make sense of Jesus’ words. The shepherd is the one who leads the flock in and out of the fold. Jesus says those who enter the Life of God by way of relationship with him will come in and go out and find pasture.

It occurs to to me that sheep don’t get sustenance in the sheepfold – for nourishment, they go out to pasture. What they get in the sheepfold is rest and security. What does that say to us as churchgoers? Often people say they go to church to be fed. What if instead we saw church-time as a time to rest and recharge, be renewed, safely enclosed in the fold with the rest of our flock – and then sent back out to find God’s nourishment in our lives the rest of the week?

What if we were fed in spiritual conversation with other people, by sharing our faith journey with people who aren’t in our “fold?” What if God wants us to be pasture by which others to be fed? The going out becomes as important as the coming in, maybe more.

Why do you go to church? What do you seek there? 
What do you seek when you leave and head back to your “life?”
Where do you, or where might you find spiritual nurture in the week between worship services?
Where might you offer it?

In prayer today, you might ask, “God… what pastures are you leading me to in my life right now? Who might you be asking me to provide a feast for?” And see what occurs to you, or who crosses your path.

We don’t come and go alone. The Great News is that the shepherd goes with us, coming in and going out. The shepherd leads us to green pastures and the shepherd leads us home again. We don’t have to search for pasture – we only have to learn the voice of the Shepherd and follow him.

5-2-17 - The Shepherd's Voice

Are sheep responsive to sound? I don't know, but Jesus - who must have known more about sheep-keeping than I do - says that sheep know the shepherd’s voice:

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

This passage always evokes for me Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning. Deep in grief at finding the tomb empty, assuming the body of her Lord has been stolen, Mary has a conversation with someone she takes for a gardener. It is only when he says her name that she recognizes Jesus by his voice. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

I can’t claim to know Jesus’ voice, but I have had enough prayer conversations with him that I believe I recognize his voice – not by timbre but by what he says. When I get a response in prayer that is simple and profound and sometimes a little sharp, something that I’m pretty sure I would never have thought of, I attribute it to Jesus. And if it bears good fruit, I feel that hunch confirmed.

One way to describe spiritual growth as a Christ-follower is allowing our spirits to become familiar with the Shepherd’s voice, so that we are led to green pastures and still waters, to fruitfulness and refreshment. Christ’s leading, which comes to us through the Holy Spirit, can also steer us away from ravines and precipices. As we learn to trust his guidance, we also become more attuned to false shepherds who try to lead us away from the One who makes us whole.

How do you experience Jesus’ voice in your life? Through scripture or prayer? In worship? 
Inner promptings? Other people offering interpretations?

If the very idea of “hearing” Jesus seems strange to you, consider offering a prayer like this: “Okay, Jesus, if you call your own sheep by name and lead them out, call me in a way I can understand.” And then see what happens over the next hours or days or weeks… check in periodically with that prayer and see if your relationship is changing at all. It’s not up to the sheep, it’s up to the shepherd… yet it helps if the sheep are open to possibilities.

Jesus had to watch a lot of people who drifted into his community be drawn away again by fear-mongering leaders who warned people not to trust him. I imagine it pained him to watch people come close to the love he offered and then wander off.

But Jesus never forced anyone to follow him, and he doesn’t now. He only calls to us, with open arms. Do we hear with open ears?

5-1-17 - The Gate

Someday maybe I'll understand the Easter season lectionary. After a few Sundays exploring the events of Easter Sunday, on Easter 4 we leave behind the Resurrection of Christ and jump to one of the “I am the good shepherd” passages. Why?

At first glance, “Good Shepherd Sunday” sounds nice and comforting. But as we read these passages, we find they are anything but cuddly. Thieves, rustlers, predators and unreliable hired men abound. It turns out that Jesus is talking – as usual – about the corrupt and oppressive religious leaders whom he feels misrepresent God and choke the spiritual life of their people:

“Very truly, I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”

Is it any wonder they wanted to kill Jesus? He compares them to thieves and bandits who would rob people of their assurance of God’s love and mercy. Of course, comparing the people to sheep is not the most flattering allusion either.

And it is easy to get tangled in the words as John presents them; isn't Jesus the shepherd? But later Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

My literal mind has trouble imagining Jesus, a person, as a gate. Maybe it helps if we think of Him as one who creates entry space for contact with God – a threshold we cross to gain access to the Holy One, the Creator of all. After all, we affirm that it is by Jesus’ holiness, not our own, that we have access to the Father. He’s our way in… and out.

Does Jesus function that way in your spiritual life? Is he a threshold you can cross, a space-creator?
Have you suffered from poor shepherds in the past, who made intimacy with God more difficult? Perhaps you can pray for them, and even forgive. That makes space too.
Do you think you need Jesus to get closer to God? Do you want him in that between-space?

My prayer for today is, “Jesus – if you’re the gate, show me how I can get closer to the fullness of God by getting closer to you.”

4-28-17 - To Have, Not Hold

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

The post-resurrection Jesus had astonishing properties – he could appear in locked rooms and disappear at will. Perhaps it wasn’t so much “appear” and “disappear” as “materialize” and “dematerialize.” After all, the risen Jesus was spirit – not a ghost, he points out, but spirit. He seemed to be able to take on substance, or matter, when he needed to be seen. (Perhaps he had those properties before resurrection as well… His little stroll upon the Sea of Galilee and transfiguration on the mountain offer a tantalizing hint into the physics of Jesus’ incarnation…).

Jesus pulls this disappearing act in several resurrection appearances, the Gospels tell us. He says to Mary in the garden, “Don’t hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” (John 20:11-18) He did hang out and have breakfast with the disciples on the beach after the miraculous catch of fish (John 21), but his interview with Peter implies his coming absence. In Luke’s account of the upper room appearance, he talks about sending the Spirit to them (Luke 24:36-49). It is clear he’s not sticking around.

Jesus was not back to stay. His post-Resurrection, pre-Ascension walkabout had a purpose, to reinforce the teaching he’d given his followers for three years, and to prepare them to receive the Holy Spirit, who would kick the whole operation into gear. And here we are, more or less still in gear, two thousand-plus years later.

We tend to want to keep what feels good, to rest in it. And that is not God’s gift to us. Jesus always seems to be moving on to the next place we will find him. Maybe our wiring is too weak to withstand the frequency of God’s presence all the time. I know I have trouble abiding with Jesus for even a little while, though there is something about that presence that I crave. Maybe Jesus’ appearances, whether in those 40 days, or in our prayers and worship and ministry and community now, are always brief and for a purpose. Maybe he leads us on to new ways to experience him and new ways to make him known to the world, because there are so many who do not know him and need a multiplicity of on-ramps.

Where did you last experience the presence of Christ? How long did that experience last? Did you feel ready for it to end? If you would you like to experience the presence of Christ, and aren’t aware of having done so, here’s a prayer for today: “Risen Lord – I want to know you, to feel your presence, your love. Open my eyes, ears, heart and hands, and find me where I am today. Amen.”
I don’t know what will come of that prayer, but you can pray and release it. God will answer in God’s time and in a way that works for you. I don’t believe God hides from us. 

And whenever you do encounter that presence, tell someone! Those disciples got up from the table and ran seven miles back the way they’d just come to tell the story, only to find that Jesus had showed up in Jerusalem the same evening.

I don’t think anyone, even the most prayer-soaked mystic, experiences God’s presence in a constant, unbroken way. Jesus did make a promise, though, that we can rest in, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the ages.” At the end of the ages, we’ll be able to sit in his presence full time.

For now, we take the moments and string them together like pearls of great price.

4-27-17 - Breaking Bread

“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past…” So begins a well-loved prayer from the Episcopal service of Compline, or “night prayer.” It comes from this week’s Gospel story. The two disciples do not recognize Jesus, despite his insight and authority on sacred history, but they want to continue conversation with him, to remain in his presence. Even as they reach their destination, and he is preparing to walk on, they urge him to stay:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…

Something about Jesus’ resurrection body must have been different – in nearly every post-Easter appearance we read in the Gospels, people who knew and loved Jesus did not recognize him until he did or said something familiar. At the supper table that night in Emmaus, when Jesus took the bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them, they suddenly saw who it was they’d spent the afternoon with. How often had they seen him bless and break bread – when they fed 5,000 people on a hillside with five loaves and two fish; when they’d gathered only a few nights ago in the upper room for the Passover feast. Such strange words had accompanied that action: “Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Whenever you eat this bread, do it in remembrance of me.” The familiar action made manifest the holy.

Breaking bread is a universal rite of community, whether gathered at end of day, to celebrate a special occasion, to reconvene family or reconcile the estranged. It became a central act for Christian communities, not only the Eucharistic blessing, breaking and sharing, but also a common meal celebrating the people gathered.

At our Eucharistic feast, the bread is a symbol of Christ’s body. It is broken so as to be shared, given away, as his life was. So, too, the community (also the Body of Christ) is broken apart after worship to feed the world. As a friend once described the eucharist: “You give us this little piece of bread, and we give it away all week, and come back for more.” Yes. And when next the Body comes back together, reconstituted, there is a new loaf of bread to be broken. And on it goes, this breaking and making whole in Jesus’ name.

With what do you associate “the breaking of bread?” What are the holy feasts in your life? They may not be centered around worship, but around family or holidays or celebrations – picnics, banquets.
Do you think of Jesus when the bread in those feasts is broken and shared? Such moments can become a quotidian reminder that his presence is a promise to us, a daily invitation to enter his brokenness and his wholeness.

Maybe you would like to make that Compline prayer part of your end-of-day practice: Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

For the sake of His love, he has already granted that prayer. That way is ready for us to walk in.

4-26-17 - The Guidebook

Do you ever read guidebooks about a place before you visit it? I try, and find I can’t really retain the details – it’s too abstract, too flat. Once I’ve been there, though, I enjoy going back to the book, to let its information fill out what I’ve now seen and experienced.

The Bible can be that way – a whole lot of information and other people’s stories, until we experience God for ourselves and have a personal context from which to process those writings. Perhaps that’s how the Scriptures were for Jesus’ followers before the resurrection, sacred writings that spoke of God’s activity in the past and promised some future restoration that they couldn’t imagine. But after Jesus rose from the dead? Ah, now, let’s read that prophecy again.

Is this what the two disciples on the Emmaus road experienced when the stranger walking with them began to teach them? “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Later, they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” With interpretation, all those words and stories of God suddenly made a kind of sense. They were leading somewhere. Yes, they had their own validity in their original times and communities – and now they also had a new interpretation, both broader and narrower, pointing to what God was up to in the mission of Jesus Christ on earth.

Guidebooks are great, but we often benefit from having a guide as well, someone who’s been further up the road, to help us interpret the path we’re traveling. In Jesus, those sojourners found a Guide who could help interpret the Guidebook. In the Holy Spirit, we get the same gift – as we read the Scriptures alone or with others, aided by Christ’s Spirit, they come to life, and bring life to us.

Who has helped you better understand parts of the Bible that you’ve read? Who have you helped?
What other guides have come alongside you on the spiritual path, to help make sense of your surroundings – spiritual directors, teachers, authors?

If reading the bible is a challenge for you, you might take a small chunk each day and pray before you read, “Holy Spirit, be with me in my reading and receiving – show me what gifts your Word has for me today.” Read and see what catches your attention. Read it again. Try reading it aloud. Stay with that passage for another day if it’s giving you life.

If you’re not part of a bible study group, I highly recommend joining one – having other people’s insights and perspectives opens it up for us.

This Book of ours is a good guidebook, even as some parts can be dull, and others seem out of touch, even angering. The terrain it describes is vast and intricate, ancient and yet to come. But with the Spirit’s help, this Word can nurture our spirits and strengthen our faith… and occasionally even start a fire in our hearts.

4-25-17 - Dashed Hopes

Every so often I have an “under a rock” moment; I get too busy to check the news (or Facebook…) and am unaware of major events, celebrities, social moments and movements. The stranger whom the two disciples encounter on the road to Emmaus seems like that, shockingly ignorant of the big news in Jerusalem. Surely even those beyond Jesus’ circle had heard the weekend’s big story, the holy man condemned by the temple leaders, crucified by the Romans – and mysteriously missing from the tomb into which his body had been placed just 48 hours ago… But here he is, asking,

"What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’"They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?’"They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”

Maybe something about this stranger invites them deeper, for they go beyond the facts to the feelings they are wrestling with: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” There it is. “We had hoped…” In addition to the trauma of the past week, they are face to face with their own lost hopes. It was hard enough to put their trust in someone of such simple origins, from Galilee; a rabbi, teacher. Oh yes, there were the miracles, but also the upside-down teachings… Were they just plain wrong?

Are we? Be honest – have you never felt disappointed by God? I don't think it’s possible to be a person of faith and not be disappointed by God. We are invited to put our trust, our weight on someone we cannot see, touch or feel, except in indirect and inward ways. Anyone who’s ever gone out on a limb in prayer and not seen it answered in any positive way, or faced a heartbreak in life, can have a beef with God. Our Scriptures are full of people who have a beef with God – and often express it in eloquent and poetic ways. That’s the key – to express it, have it out with God in prayer, the way we do in any relationship we hope will be lasting and life-giving.

Those men did not know they were confessing their disappointment to the Lord himself – but we do. Tell God the big life stuff, and the little, niggling things. If you feel like you’re at a wall in your faith, say so. The very act of expressing it creates space for the Holy Spirit’s healing, restoring love to work in us.

And, while we're at it, give thanks for the times we have not been disappointed. It’s all part of the picture, and the more complete the picture is, the stronger our faith can be.

Those men on the road had more to say, crazy stuff: “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’”

We don’t always know what God is up to when our hopes are dashed. Sometimes we find out later that God has moved heaven and earth on our behalf. Sometimes we discover that Jesus is right in front of us, even if we don’t see him.

4-24-17 - Strangers on the Way

I’ve known several people who have walked all or part of El Camino del Santiago, the pilgrimage route through France and Spain to the shrine of St. James (Sant’Iago) at Campostella. They observed that people who came together did not always end up walking together. Walking speeds and rhythms diverge; disagreements can crop up. For varied reasons, people often fall in with strangers on that trail, and sometimes those strangers have just the gifts they need for the spiritual journey that parallels the physical one. (For a decent film about this, check out “The Way,” starting Martin Sheen as a reluctant pilgrim on the Camino…)

If I ever make that pilgrimage, I will be thinking of this week’s gospel story, about the disciples on the road to Emmaus and the traveling companion who joined them. In our Sunday readings, it's still the Day of Resurrection. On Easter Sunday, we visit the events of that morning. On Easter 2, it’s that evening. On Easter 3 this year, we find ourselves in the late afternoon of that same day, on a road outside Jerusalem, with two of Jesus’ followers:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?"

Why were their “their eyes were kept from recognizing him?” Sometimes we just don’t see what we don’t expect to see, especially if it is far outside the bounds of probability. These two were already under great stress from the events of the past few days – watching their Lord betrayed, arrested, tried, mocked, flogged, crucified… and just as they were coming to terms with that reality, Reality itself was turned upside down with the empty tomb and reports that people had seen Jesus alive, had talked with him. Could these things be? Was it a conspiracy? A hoax? Could it possibly be true?

We process things by talking about them. So these two, in the midst of great upheaval, were discussing it, trying to make some sense of it all. And along comes a stranger who doesn’t even seem to know the events of which they are speaking - yet knows more than anyone they've ever met. He helps them understand, and sends them running seven miles back the way they’d come, their world transformed.

Have you ever found yourself talking about traumatic events with total strangers? 
Sometimes such conversations happen in hospital waiting rooms, or in the midst of disasters. 
Have you ever been the stranger that helped someone else process something painful? 
Were you aware of the presence of Christ in such an encounter? Of Christ in you, or in another?

Today, let’s give thanks for the companions who join us along our way. If you’re willing, ask God to send you alongside someone today who needs the gift you bring, the gift of the presence of Christ in you. Tonight, think back and see how that prayer was answered. Try it again tomorrow.

If I ever walk the Camino, I will assume that Christ is showing up beside me in the people with whom I walk. In fact, this principle may well be true on the roads I find myself walking today, actual or virtual. Where is the risen Christ joining you on the Way today?

4-21-17 - Believing For Your Life

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Why did John write down the Jesus story? He tells us in this week’s gospel passage: so that his readers may come to believe in Jesus’ messianic and divine identity, and “through believing you may have life in his name.” Paul, too, links spiritual vitality with believing in Jesus’ divine self. Even Jesus says that those who believe he is who he says he is will have eternal life. This believing stuff is not a minor detail.

Yet reading a story about Jesus’ resurrection activities and conversations does not by itself confer faith. Most of us need to experience the power of the Risen Christ for ourselves if we are to put our faith in him. What the written record does is invite us into the Great Story of God’s love for us expressed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It brings us to the threshold. It’s up to us to step in and live it.

Do you feel you have experienced the reality of Christ in some way or fashion? If we expect to see him the way Mary or the Eleven or the two on the Emmaus road did, we may feel we’re lacking that experience. Visual and aural Jesus sightings are rare… possibly non-existent. Jesus said as much to his followers – he said when he left, the Father would send the Holy Spirit to them. It is the Spirit who brings the presence of Christ to us in a way we can experience.

When we feel the Holy Spirit in or around us – whether by a sensation, or an insight, or seeing answer to prayer, or some other way – it is the Spirit of Christ we are experiencing. When we have a holy encounter with another person, it may be that we are meeting Christ in them. As we become more attuned to that presence, we can more readily accept that Christ is a part of us, in our lives – and thus we are led to believe more fully. His life in us leads to believing, and believing leads to more of His life in us. We become vessels for others experiencing his life, and on and on it goes.

The word for “I believe” is Credo. The creeds of the church are statements of what the gathered community came to affirm as its core beliefs. They deal mostly with matters that were confusing or controversial – they’re not comprehensive.
So what are your beliefs about Christ?
Can you take some time today to write your own Credo?
Has it changed from earlier times? Do you think it is still evolving? If you don’t know what you believe about Christ, that would be a good thing to bring up in prayer.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas after he affirms Jesus as his Lord and God. You and I have not had the advantage that Thomas and the others did, of seeing Jesus with our eyes and hearing his voice and touching his wounds. I guess that means we are blessed indeed, for we have had to develop our “faith vision.”

Did you ever think that not seeing would be an asset? When it comes to believing, it is.

4-20-17 - Believing Before Knowing

There’s always one. Somebody who missed it, didn’t see the big moment, was looking the other way, in the bathroom at the wrong time. But few people are forever identified with missing it, to the extent that the word “Doubting” becomes appended to their name. Poor Thomas. So many others have doubted; he had so many sterling qualities. Yet for two thousand years his name has been synonymous with doubt.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”

Thomas wasn’t the only one who questioned. In Mark we read, “Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mk 16:14)

Thomas stands wrongly accused of doubting. The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. That’s what Thomas wanted; he didn’t want to have to go on faith. Neither do we – faith is hard work. It means, by definition, not knowing for sure. Once we have proof, who needs faith?

Yet we exercise faith all the time – we place faith in the engineering of bridges and elevators, in the attention of other drivers, in the unseen hand of “The Market,” God help us. Why is it a greater stretch to place faith in a God whose presence is felt by millions, who has inspired uncountable acts of generosity and sacrifice? Why not believe in the risen Christ, when faith in his life in us has been affirmed for over two thousand years, by every kind of person, rich, poor, simple, erudite, good of heart and ethically challenged?

The operative word is “exercise.” Our faith is a muscle that grows stronger with use. We start out affirming our faith in God’s activity in our lives in small ways, and gradually try on bigger challenges. Jesus invites us to seek confirmation; when he shows up again the following week and Thomas is there, he invites him to touch his wounds and see for himself. But he also urges Thomas to greater faith:

Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

What aspect of God’s life or the Christian Good News do you having trouble putting faith in?
How about having a conversation with Jesus about that in prayer. “Hey, I don’t believe that story…” or “How can I have faith in your healing, when it doesn’t always happen?” As with any conversation, speak and listen. What word or thought or image comes to mind as you sit with your doubts?

Jesus’ gentleness with Thomas should encourage us. He knows faith is hard. He also knows it is the currency of God’s realm in this world, and the stronger ours is, the richer we are. One day we’ll see everything we now only affirm by faith. Believing before we see draws us that much closer to the One who is our future.

4-19-17 - Breath of God

When Jesus appeared in that locked room on Easter night, he wasn’t just dropping in to catch up with his buddies. He had some business to do. Once their lower jaws returned to normal position, he said to them again, “Peace be with you.” And then he got to it:

“’As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Now that they had a better grasp on just what Jesus meant when he said, “As the Father has sent me…” I wonder how they felt about the daunting, “So I send you.” But he wasn’t done. He was not only sending them, but also equipping them with the only power they would need, the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament records two occasions on which Jesus’ followers receive the Holy Spirit. The better known is at Pentecost, when a sound like a mighty wind fills the house where they are praying, and flames seem to alight on each one, and suddenly they have spiritual gifts and abilities they didn’t have before. That’s how Luke tells it in Acts. In the Fourth Gospel, John says they receive the Spirit directly from the Risen Christ on Easter night. No fifty-day wait. Right here, right now. He breathes upon them; the Spirit is given.

In the Genesis creation story, the Spirit of God breathes upon the waters in the beginning. This ruach, Spirit-wind or breath of God, also fills the mud creature Adam with life. So Jesus, in breathing the Spirit upon his followers, is re-creating them, making them anew – no longer just disciples who followed him in faith, but now apostles equipped to bear witness to their risen Lord. Not only will they carry within themselves the power that created all things, they will also have the spiritual authority to forgive sins. They can release, or they can retain. (I’m not sure when it’s appropriate to retain someone’s sin – perhaps in cases of extreme non- repentance. All I know is Jesus forgave an awful lot.)

Are you aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in you? That gift Jesus gave his disciples has come down to us, through faith enacted in the rites of the church. Are you conscious of the spiritual authority you have to forgive or retain? It’s not only clergy who can forgive – it’s all saints, you and me.

What if the Church really took up its ministry of forgiveness of sin – not mindlessly, but thoughtfully, lovingly? How many people do you know who carry a burden of guilt around with them that we could help ease? It’s not our own forgiveness we declare, but that of God, through God’s Spirit in us.

Jesus was sent to set humanity free. Now he sends us to participate in that mission, and he breathes upon us his Holy Spirit. Take a deep breath in…. hold it, let it expand in you…. Feel the life of God fill you. And then exhale, breathing God’s forgiving love out upon someone else (even yourself..). And then do it again. And again.

4-18-17 - Peace Be With You

Time is very elastic in our gospels. Each one spends about half its pages on the three years of Jesus’ ministry – his teaching, miracles, and exploits. When we get to his final days, we slow down considerably, spending several chapters on the events of his suffering and death. And then we get to the Sunday of the Resurrection – and we really slow down, with whole chapters devoted to just that one day, that first day of the week, that First Day of our new lives.

The church will spend the next several Sundays exploring that one day, a day that began in the dark, when some women hurried to the tomb to do for Jesus’ body what Sabbath laws forbade them to do on Friday afternoon. The day went from sad to joyful and bizarre as they were met at the now-empty tomb by an angel (or two) announcing that Jesus is risen. And then there he is, right there on the road in front of them, saying, “Tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee,” a message which has always struck me as laughably prosaic from someone who’s just been to hell and back…

In church, we don’t get to linger on that Easter morning because by the next Sunday we’ve jumped to that evening. We find that Jesus’ disciples have not gone to Galilee as instructed, but are holed up in a room – presumably the one where they’d celebrated the Passover a few nights earlier, a lifetime ago:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (This week's gospel is here.)

“Peace be with you.” I can imagine many emotions those men and women probably experienced that day, and none of them involve peace. Here they are, trying to process the cosmic developments they’ve witnessed, hiding in a locked room because the threat to their lives has just intensified. And here is Jesus, just suddenly there, despite the doors shut and locked? “Peace be with you?”

But Jesus doesn’t only say, “Peace.” He can impart peace. This is the man whom they saw still a violent storm and calm a violent man. This is the friend they watched endure torture and ridicule and betrayal and a horrible death. When Jesus says, “Peace,” he carries the power to generate it. It worked on them – soon they are rejoicing.

How would you feel if you were one of those followers?
Today you might read through this passage and play it out in your imagination, with you at that table… what do you feel? What do you want to ask Jesus? What does he answer?
Do you feel his presence with you, both “there” in the scene in your imagination, and “here,” with you as you pray? Might you invite his peace to spread through you?
What happens when you pray that way?

I believe Jesus invites us to rejoice, no matter what’s going on in our lives. He speaks peace to us too, and as we let his presence live in us, we begin to feel that peace spreading through our minds and our bodies and our spirits. That is one way that Easter becomes real for us.

4-15-17 - Holy Saturday: Joseph of Arimathea

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. 

Joseph of Arimathea: Am I to have the last word, then? I, who am most on the edges of this story? Even my friend Nicodemus, who helped me prepare Jesus' body for burial, even he has his own chapter in the tale. But what do you know about me?

That I am a rich man, rich enough to have my own tomb set aside, waiting for my death. That I come from Arimathea – a place you’ve never heard of, a village in the hill country of Ephraim, in Judea, 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. That I am a prominent member of the Council, the Jewish leadership, like Nicodemus. That I was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because, unlike my Lord, I was afraid of what my brethren on the Council would do to me if they knew what I believed. Who I believed in. I was not ready to lose my position, my livelihood, my life. I was not ready to die.

But I can offer what I can offer. That’s all any of us can do. I had a tomb, and Jesus’ broken, bloodied body needed a place of rest. I had the connections to approach Pilate and get permission to take Jesus’ body away from that place of skulls. I had the means to provide the proper linens and spices for burial, so that Jesus’ body in death would receive the care it never had in life. I offered what I could. What can you offer?

God never asks us to give something we don’t have… and among all that we do have, there is much that can advance God’s mission of restoration and renewal in this world. What might you give?

Today, offer the gift of time and worship - if you are in the DC area, please come to our Great Vigil of Easter at St. Columba’s. It is a magical, mysterious, multi-media experience that takes us from the shadows of death into the light of Life. (4201 Albemarle Street, NW, Washington DC) Bring bells!

4-14-17 - Good Friday: Mary of Magdala

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus.

Mary of Magdala: My name is Mary. I’m from Magdala. I’m one of those women, one of those who followed Jesus from Galilee and helped take care of him and the disciples.

This man, this man they killed today? This man healed me. He set me free from the worst kind of bondage you can imagine. He cast out seven demons from me, who were torturing me. I didn’t think I’d ever get free of those voices, the constant chatter inside, telling me how worthless I was, how I’d be better off dead. He gave me back my life.

After that he was my life. I would have followed him anywhere. He was my Lord. So following him and tending to his needs and those of his disciples – what else could I do? The only thing that made sense now was serving him. He set me free, you see, and all I wanted to use my freedom for was to serve him.

That’s how it was for all of us – this motley collection of people who had been set free – from demons, from sin and degradation, some from blindness, crippling diseases; some from despair and loneliness and meaningless lives; some from greed and lust. Just a bunch of people who love him because of what he did for them. Fairly selfish kind of love, when you think about it. But it was real, it was real when you were with him. He made it real. He made us all able to love in a way we didn’t naturally know. (Pause.) And now he's gone.

So... now we have to bury him. I hear some guy from the Sanhedrin has given him a tomb. We’ll have to see to it. I guess it’s too late now to anoint him before the Sabbath begins. We’ll have to do it first thing Sunday morning…

I’d better find the others and see where they’re taking him.

Understanding what Jesus has given us helps to deepen our devotion to him. That can be easier when our spiritual story has a before/after conversion aspect. But even those of us who have grown up in this faith can discover who Jesus is to us, and uncover our deep need for the healing only he can bring. For Mary it came through redemption from spiritual bondage and emotional pain. What is it for you?

Wherever you are on that journey of discovery, whether or not you feel the freedom Mary and others experienced in Jesus’ love, pause today in prayer to give thanks for what is possible, and invite the Holy Spirit to make that knowledge more real and specific for you. That’s why we call this Good Friday.